The film opens with an actor’s dream – a close-up on lead actor Jack Nicholson, his face half-lit, reciting an at least five minute monologue. He recounts a dramatic story of childhood that ends with a realization about his brother. Then a red light begins flashing. The shot switches and we realize he is inside a dee jay booth spinning his story for radio. It seemed so honest, but now we wonder how much he meant it (or how much of it was true).
Nicholson has made a career out of playing rascally live-wires but as David Stabler he emanates not so much regret as passivity, a recognition that life might have passed him by but not being ornery enough to do anything about it. Often an actor who weasels his way to the center of proceedings even if he’s not supposed to (see: “The Departed”), Nicholson’s character, despite technically being the lead, exists by drifting just off to the side, watching the action, considering take part, but not taking part and perhaps feeling guilty for not taking part.
He is summoned to the crumbling boardwalk empire of Atlantic City by his brother Jason (Bruce Dern, charmingly slimy and impeccably moustached), a small-time hustler mixed up in a bizarre, don't-ask relationship with Sally (Ellen Burstyn) and her stepdaughter Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson) who will claim from here to the ends of the earth that he is big-time. He explains he owns the St. James Hotel where he is staying. A dispute with real management occurs and the jig is up. Right? No, Jason explains, his ownership was still in the “exploratory stage.” It would make you laugh out loud if it wasn’t such a pitifully honest lie.
Jason wants David to come in with him on a deal to put up a resort on an island called Tiki off the coast of Hawaii. Never mind that the island doesn’t appear on most maps, it’s the most beautiful place Jason has ever seen! That’s what he says. Of course, he also said he owned the St. James Hotel. He also said the St. James Hotel had the finest accommodations on the Boardwalk and when they enter the room the lights are not even working. You can’t help but wonder, has Jason actually been to Tiki? Does Tiki even exist? Did he buy this map claiming Tiki’s existence from some hobo on the Reading Railroad?
It would be easy for David to call his loquacious brother on the carpet and, yet, he never really does. He wonders about the validity of this whole island rigmarole but lets his brother hustle him back off the ledge. His brother routinely promises the comely Jessica is for him to flirt with but he just maintains a polite distance. He is, to put it mildly, among the most inactive main characters you are likely to encounter.
It could be argued the most prominent character in "The King of Marvin Gardens" is Atlantic City itself, somehow being both garish and worn-out, on its last legs. The film's most mesmerizing shot is basic, placing Jason before a bulky velvet curtain that has seen better days in his hotel room which evokes a fading, desperate comedian rapping to an indifferent crowd. It's the whole movie in a nutshell - eternal paradise is just a pitch made from an outdated stage.
Not all shots are created equal, however, and often Rafelson's shot selection and scene choices feel too pre-determined. For example, an extended sequence in which our principle quartet stages a fake Miss America pageant all on its lonesome in an empty arena. It isn't the failure to connect to the overall story, since the story is so loose and free, as it is a bit of false theatricality from our protagonist. This dampens its effect, reducing it to a show-offy vignette.
On the other hand, a sequence set on the Atlantic coast beach (always shot in an unattractive grey) of Jason and his girls pitching their belongings into a bonfire in anticipation of leaving the Atlantic for the Pacific and the promise of a new tomorrow captures everything the Miss America "pageant" does not. By this point we have seen enough to know that promise cannot be kept and Sally seems to know it too. She removes a pair of scissors. She chops at her hair, taking the locks and tossing them into the flames.
Finally, she stops, though we sense she could have kept going. It's as if she wants to simply cut herself off from everything and just go up in smoke.